Helene Manago drove into Washington yesterday afternoon and went to the White House. She did not try to go inside, or even speak to anyone. She carried no sign. She just stood outside the gate and looked in, across the lawn, past the leafless trees, thinking maybe she would see -- what? She didn't know. It didn't matter. The nation may go to war, and though she can't make that decision she can be near to it.

"I wanted to go into D.C. and see if I could feel what's going on, feel it in the air," said Manago, a bill collector in Hampton, Va. "When you're at home and see things on television sometimes it seems kind of ... benign. But like I told them last night, I wanted to go into D.C. and get a feeling, just get a glimpse. I may not feel any better when I leave here, and I know I won't know anything different, but it's like when you have somebody in the hospital and they're in serious condition, and you know you can't do anything for them but at least you were with them. It turns out to be something for yourself."

In the wake of the grim news from Geneva, the White House is quite literally under scrutiny. People are stopping by on their lunch hour, after work, between shifts. It is a peculiar fact of Washington that the president's home and office is in the center of town, the windows of the old mansion so close that you expect to see a silhouette of the Chief. But of course he is never seen. A few cars come and go. The house is lit up by the low-angled sun. The grass is incongruously green under the skeletal trees.

Yesterday some businessmen fashioned anti-war signs out of their file folders. A group of health care workers made a sign with a long computer printout. Charlene Disse, a computer engineer in Falls Church, took the week off so she could carry a placard along the sidewalk; she had never made one of these signs before, and even got lost on the way to the White House.

"I have to do something. I can't sit by idly and watch us go to war. I can't look at it like another soap opera on TV," she said.

Fred Ruof of Baltimore stopped by after doing some business in town. He wanted to thank the handful of protesters who were marching with signs. "Thanks for being here," he told them one and all. "We won't have this war if the American people speak up," he said.

It is, at the same time, hardly Tiananmen Square. At any given moment there may be only a few people on the sidewalk, speaking German or Japanese and interested only in getting a snapshot. There have been some arrests for civil disobedience and a couple of scenes with fake blood, but the major organized protests are still in the future: a prayer vigil Monday night, and large rallies on the 19th and 26th. Those protesters who show up daily, who march for hours in the cold, are surprised that even at this late date, with war conceivably less than a week away, there is such a casual trickle of interested people dropping by 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

"I wish everyone were here," said Roger Ludwig of Arlington. "I wish everyone were for peace."

Ann Sorenson of Evansville, Ind., carrying a sign reading "Negotiate," said she hoped this was the start of a larger movement: "I hope we're seeding the clouds."

Nearby, a man from England lingered for a moment to stare at the mansion. "I'm behind the president, like most of the people in the U.K. I say sock it to the stupid sod. That's British talk."

Across the street in Lafayette Square, anti-nuclear activists have been camped out in a vigil that has lasted for years. One man wears an Army helmet, for his protection in case of war, he says. He identifies himself as "Concerned Citizen," nothing else.

Another, who calls himself "Mouse," has been protesting against warmaking for the past year, around the clock, sleeping right there in the park, but suddenly the news seems to have eclipsed him, his fears so close to realization he can't seem to grasp the concept: "I don't know what's going on and I don't want to know."