By nightfall, when Gorbachev was due to arrive at the Soviet Embassy, the demonstrations were over, the crass eruptions of democracy and archetypes of pageantry were suppressed, and 16th Street was cleared, blocked off, with the pleasantly bleak atmosphere of something impending, an inevitability. It was quiet. The canopy of sirens that had been hanging over Washington all day during all the demonstrations had lifted, and it was a cloudy night in December, a little breezy, a hammer-and-sickle flag rolling in the cold floodlights in front of the embassy, a man in a raincoat standing alone in the middle of the street. Once in a while a police motorcycle with a sidecar would burst up the asphalt with the aimlessness of something blown by the wind.

"He's not going to come out and wave," said Fatima Abdullahi, a faculty member watching and waiting by a window on the second floor of Strayer College. She meant it more as matter of fact than prediction. Part of the dark electricity of the occasion was having known for days that Gorbachev, like an ancient Chinese emperor, would never be seen by ordinary eyes.

The official reasoning was that he had to be protected from us, from one of those squalid and sinful fits of violence that are part of our national character. But would we have acted any differently if it were we who had to be protected from him, if he were radioactive or insane, or the basilisk itself, the mythical lizard who would turn anyone who saw him to stone? Either way, there was a lot of power going around.

His image would be purveyed to the public only in effigy, be it on television screens or, just possibly, swimming behind the bulletproof glass of his Zil limousine. The metropolitan police had cordoned people off behind concrete barricades, rows of motorcycles, miles of yellow plastic ribbon, and now the crowds waiting to see him arrive weren't all that big, no larger than a car crash would draw.

"I see the lights flashing," said Abdullahi. With the modesty of the puritan ideologies on both the American and Soviet sides, the black metal weight of limousines and station wagons slid through the barricades behind the industrial thunder of 10 motorcycles. There were curtains on the limousine windows. The one with Gorbachev in it (one presumes) slid under an awning in front of the Soviet embassy and that was all, that was the spectacle, that was what the Middle Ages would have called the entry pageant.

"Come and gone," said Doug Blaney, a doctor from Pasadena, Calif.

Medieval rulers would have known how to avoid the cool stalemate of democratic spectacle. They would have had fountains spouting wine, and allegories of fame and truth. There would have been jugglers, dwarves, beggars, mendicant friars, itinerant priests, mummers and pipers, petitioners and madmen, and of course that's precisely what had been raging through downtown Washington for days.

So many costumes, so many meanings, so much history! Lafayette Park turned into a feast of allegories. The Afghans pushed an armless boy named Subhan, 14, in front of a crowd of Ukrainian demonstrators holding pictures of the Virgin Mary.

"I bombed buildings in the '60s," said Robin Palmer, a tree surgeon from Ithaca, N.Y., who wore a bear suit and said he felt former Vietnam protesters should be joining him in protests against the Soviet Union. "I went to jail for three years for attempting to bomb National City Bank. I bombed Rockefeller Center, Marine Midland Bank ... " And then he got up on the stage next to Subhan and played the Soviet Union in a skit, dropping booby-trapped toys on Afghanistan.

"I have toys for the Afghan children," he shouted through his bear mask.

"We don't want your toys," the Afghan children shouted back.

The Ukrainians lined up in front of the Afghans and headed for the Soviet Embassy, carrying seven coffins and chanting "Freedom Now" as they passed a 10-foot-tall Trojan horse trucked down here by the New Hampshire Conservative Union.

"The Russians come bearing gifts but the gifts are loaded," said the union's George Allen, in case anyone failed to get the point of the allegory.

Just beyond him was Lillie Smith, a large, loud, homeless woman from Los Angeles, saying, "Secretary Gorbachev, make no more human rights concessions to the U.S. until I'm free from this homeless genocide and discrimination. I don't have a place to lay my head."

This was not the only pro-Soviet demonstration of the past several days. At the National Press Club the occasional journalist had stood up at a press conference with Soviet editors on Friday and lobbed suspiciously easy questions. There were buttons that said "I Love Gorby," and T-shirts that said "Gorbachev for President -- If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em."

It was not the only demonstration with a tenuous connection to the summit, either. The Haitians marched in front of the Organization of American States, two men carried a banner that read "Cure AIDS Now," and a beekeeper named Edwin Wagner, of New Castle, Del., held up a sign that said "John Lennon Lived and Died for This Day."

He explained: "Tomorrow is the anniversary of John Lennon's death and it's also the signing of the INF treaty -- I mean, it coincides, doesn't it?"

For the second day in a row, four people in helmets marched to a drumbeat and carried a sign reading simply "Why Not?" It turned out they were demonstrating against Japanese manufacturers of three- and four-wheel all-terrain vehicles. "It's like World War III!" said the drummer, Bruce Spencer, a marketing researcher from New York City.

"The media event provokes an explosion of different sections of this society," said an amazed Binba de Maria, a reporter for Italy's RAI-TV. "Nothing like this in Italy, no."

Joe Saunders, a student from Pennsylvania, had a sign that said "O. Henry Was Framed," referring, he said, to the short-story writer's conviction for embezzlement. "I figured everybody's got a cause, why shouldn't I." Saunders described himself as a "summithead" -- "I went to the one in Iceland, I'm here, and it's going to be tough getting to the one in Moscow, but I'll try."

There were coffins, flowers, black balloons and Buddhist drummers. Phyllis Schlafly, antifeminist head of the Eagle Forum, carried a tattered umbrella to symbolize "what our nuclear umbrella is today" and complained that the INF treaty was only a ruse to block the Strategic Defense Initiative. Bill Jones, a follower of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche, stood in front of the Marriott Hotel's press center dressed up, complete with morning coat and umbrella, as Neville Chamberlain, the great appeaser of Hitler at Munich. Inside, a black-gowned Presbyterian minister named G. Jarvis McMillan said he'd brandished a tattered umbrella at a demonstration a month before, but now he was standing in front of a cage of doves he planned to present to Reagan and Gorbachev, along with a doctor named Erwin Bacmeister, who wore his white coat. Both of them comforted Richard F. Sherwood, who had been a navigator, he said, on a B29 that photographed the devastation at Hiroshima just after the atom bomb was dropped.

"Forty-two years ago, I saw . . .," he said, and then he sobbed and asked someone else to finish reading the statement he'd prepared. The priest, the healer, the penitent, all of them petitioners, part of the summit pageant.

Some of the allegories and costumes were less conspicuous, but they were there.

"This is the elite Soviet propaganda machine," said Soviet spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov as he stood in the Soviet press center and welcomed Charles Z. Wick, head of the U.S. Information Agency. Gerasimov wore television makeup, and the small smile of the archconfident. He had a way of not looking at people when he talked to them, and this made him powerful, top dog, in the way that Gorbachev's calm hesitations before the microphone when he arrived at Andrews Air Force Base would make him seem a man not only of many decisions, but a man who was not afraid to make them in public -- he could afford to hesitate, that was the message.

nd finally, it came down to the muffled muscularity of a lot of black cars riding down an empty street in front of the Soviet Embassy, a street cleared of both demonstrators and citizen onlookers, in an allegory for the nuclear age: much power and little glory.