In the low-country dark, before the Rappahannock River creatures begin their pre-dawn noise, Eva Berry rises and dresses for a 100-mile drive north to the Washington suburbs where she works as a maid.

Up and down the roads at 3:30 or 4 a.m., other lights go on. Following a fading tradition, Eva Berry and an unknown number of other black women in poor rural Virginia communities pack themselves into cars or vans each day and spend two to five hours on a round-trip that makes the difference between have and have-not.

Around home, they say they might make $10 a day, if they could get work. In the affluent residential ring around the nation's capital, employers pay them a minimum of $20 a day and more often $25. Some even pay them for holidays and vacation time.

Many of the women pay $3 a day for their rides. Construction workers, who commute for similar economic reasons chauffeur them in vans, or they ride with one of the few women, such as Eva Berry, who have a car and license.

Berry and perhaps two dozen others who come from Tappahannock, Champlain, Hustle, Bowling Green and other communities in Virginia's Northern Neck area, gather at a traditional drop-off place - the parking lot of the Virginia Employment Commission office at Seven Corners.

They arrive around 6:30 a.m. and sit in the cars, or on the curb, until the employment office unlocks the door to its lobby - really just a small hallway - at 7:30 or 8 a.m. Inside, they can sit on a bench and keep cool or, in the winter, warm.

For those who do not have a regular employer, the trip is a gamble. They might spend the entire day sitting on the employment office's bench, until the car pool leaves, sometimes as late as 4 p.m. When they ride with the men, they said, there are more stops to make and they do not reach home until 7 or 8 p.m.

Rebecca Taylor, 30, a shy, pretty woman from Hustle, was one of four women who sat in Eva's station wagon at first-light one recent morning, passing the time with talk. This was Rebecca's first trip to the parking lot. She had just separated from her husband and has three children to support. "I couldn't get work at home," she said. "I got to work somewhere."

Mary Taylor, who has been making the trip from Tappahannock for 10 years, offered encouragement from the front seat. "I work five days a week, steady," said Mrs. Taylor, 42, the mother of eight. "The people I work for treats me right, too, or I woouldn't work for them."

"Some are a hassle, though," said Eva Berry, a stocky woman with a broad, friendly face and a rash on her leg from the poisoning she caught while fishing in a creek off the Rappahannock.

"One of my ladies had five different bathrooms with five different detergents she wanted me to use in each one," she said.

"What?" chorused the others, voices high with sympathy. Mrs. Berry lowered her voice. "Soon as that lady left, I just cleaned it my own way."

Like most household workers, the women receive fringe benefits haphazardly, if at all. Some employers pay them for holidays and vacation days, most provide lunches and some give bonuses on birthdays and at Christmas, the women said.

The women were bemused by some of what they call the "ways of their employers. One described a couple - a doctor wife and lawyer husband - who "vacate for six weeks. They tour everywhere. But then they say they can't afford this or that. If she need a blouse, and there's a button off of it, she just sew a button on the one she has. They're sweet, though."

One of the women, still half asleep in a rear seat, hugged a flowered pillow and blinked silently.

Despite the grueling hours and rising costs of the travel, the women said they had not much inclination to move closer to the city, even if they could afford the housing. Many live on or near land their families once farmed, and they feel that they belong there, they said.

Eva Berry lives in Champlain with her husband Johnny, a construction worker, and their four children on the family property where Johnny was born.

"I just don't prefer the city. I want to be able to run barefooted," Berry said, "or nude." She laughed. "Country living is fun, if nothing else."

Shortly before 8 a.m., a man in a black Rambler drove up and took Mary Taylor away.

By about 8:30 a.m., Rebecca Taylor was having her intial interview with an employment commission staff member so she could be referred for housekeeping jobs.

The interview revealed that Taylor had finished tenth grade, had no driver's license and no car. Her work history said she had been a live-in housekeeper and cook for a Loretta, Va., man and his mother for five years, at $25 a week plus room and board. That job had ended in 1971 when she was 24 years old.

After a phone call or two, the interviewer told Rebecca there was no work for her that day. Many of the employers were on vacation.

The demand for maids generally outstrips the supply, but job seekers such as Taylor often are not able to take advantage of available jobs, according to Dee Wurth of the employment commission office at Seven Corners.

Transportation is a major problem in the suburbs, she said. "Some people, when they first move to Fairfax County, call us for a maid and say, 'Can't they take the bus?' Well, the bus service out here is very bad. And some people can't or don't want to drive over here and pick up the women up."

Women such as Taylor are dependent on pool vehicles, and a breakdown can cost them their jobs, Wurth said. Also, some employers require their maids to be on duty until 4 or 5 p.m., she said, while the pool vehicles leave the parking lot at 3 or 4 p.m.

As recently as six or eight years ago, hundreds of women in communities strung from Front Royal, in the Shenandoah foothills to the west, to the Rappahannock to the south crowded into cars with construction workers or traveled on old restored school buses to and from the suburbs.

The decline in their numbers has coincided with a general decline in the number of all household workers - a 43 per cent decrease since 1958. according to the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor.

According to Anita Shelton, head of the National Committee on Household Employment in Washington, openings in other service occupations, such as health services, have diverted many persons from household work.

Perhaps more important, she said, is the fact that "the relationship between employer and employee is still seen as a master-servant relationship. This has caused people not to enter the field, even though the work is not as hard and monotonous as work in some other fields . . . The women's movement has caused a reassessment of this . . . It's a matter of self-esteem."

When asked, women from around the Rappahannock shook their heads and said, no, they do not want their own children to follow them to the big city as maids.

Eva Berry smiled and raised her chin and said, "I'm paying on a trust fund for my daughter's education. She's seven. She says she wants to be a teacher."