Nobody looks as startled as a squirrel who's just been interrupted. But this furry fellow looked scared half to death. He'd been hunting for lunch in a trash can. When he heard my footsteps, he jumped onto the can's lip and froze, like a jewel thief caught in the act. Then he scurried away.

"He wasn't ready for you," said the grinning capitol policeman who witnessed the encounter. "I don't think he's seen a person in about two weeks."

When a legislature is in session, it burbles and bustles with laws and lawmakers. When a legislature is out of session, you're lucky to find a squirrel to scare.

But the off-season is an excellent time to see a state capitol as it really is, without crowded stairwells, without whirring mimeograph machines -- the lady with no makeup. I had been to the state government office buildings in Richmond a zillion times, but never to the capitol itself. With a couple of hours to kill, why not nose around Virginia's historic, tree-lined government complex?

I began in the parking lot. Bumper stickers are usually a good way to take a legislature's temperature. I expected scores of Reagans and Mondales, with VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS for dessert. But the presidential candidates rated only one mention apiece. And "Lovers" has given way to less memorable successors.

VIRGINIANS DRIVE WITH SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY, said one senator's Chevy wagon. Doubtful. I hadn't seen much hospitality on I-95 that morning.

WE HAVE IT MADE IN VIRGINIA, said a BMW belonging to a delegate from Norfolk. Cute. But a close look revealed that the Made-in-Virginia sticker had been made in California. Not so cute.

I walked into the capitol through the west entrance. No one was around. My footsteps clattered. Was I supposed to be in here? I felt like an intruder. Around a bend, I saw a shadow. Was it a guard I could ask?

Some guard. It was a shadow cast by a statue of George Washington in the Rotunda.

I stood there and read the inscription (" . . . .who, uniting to the endowments of Hero the virtues of the Patriot . . . ."). A volunteer tour guide rose from behind a desk and pressed a guidebook into my hand, "so you'll know what you're looking at." A huge stack of guidebooks sat on her desk. As if it hadn't been obvious before, it was a slow day at the capitol.

It was just as slow inside the House chamber. Two clerks were sitting at desks in the back row, sorting through card files. They were using the chamber as overflow work space. In session, the chamber is the seat of the action. Out of session, it's just extra square footage.

I walked over to the Senate side, passing absolutely no one in the process. On the floor, two repairmen were winding electric cable onto a spool and discussing football. The gallery was empty. Still, the TEMPORARILY FILLED sign stood by the gallery entrance. Someone's idea of a joke? Maybe, but there was no one to ask.

On ground level, I found the past -- group photos of every legislature to serve in Richmond since the camera was invented.

I browsed through the delegates of the 1920s and 1930s: Saxon Holt, J. Belmont Woodson, Hunsdon Cary. Flowing southern names for jowly men in vests and watch chains. One could almost see the spittoons, almost hear the bellows of, "Mistuh-h-h-h-h Speakuh-h-h-h-h."

But not on this day. The governor's office was locked, the vote tally boards were dark and the elevator was right there when you pushed the button to summon it. History was all around you, but so was silence. Silence and startled squirrels.