A crisp autumn evening, the moon rising as if on cue over the river, and music washing over a broad lawn: Everything seemed to be in place and lovely at the latest fund-raiser for Charles County's only hospital.

But beneath the light jazz, a quiet buzz played out among the invited crowd at Idyllic, an estate near Southern Maryland's Wicomico River. There was a disturbing piece of news to discuss, if only discreetly.

The Civista Medical Center, a hospital nestled in the community since local doctors founded it 60 years ago to bring health care to a poor and rural place, was suddenly deep in the hole.

Just days earlier, hospital executives had revealed billing failures and questionable borrowing as they asked county commissioners for a $10 million emergency loan. They received a cool reception and no immediate reply, although commissioners later said some funding probably would be forthcoming.

For a certain set in Charles County, the entire episode was startling, as if a beloved and sober uncle had suddenly confessed to girl-chasing and wild spending.

Neither is the sort of thing bandied about in public.

Gossip and worry nonetheless reached the ears of Al Smith, a former political candidate who was tapped to be a celebrity bartender for the 125 guests at the Oct. 23 riverside wine tasting.

As Smith poured zinfandel and chardonnay, guests approached him with whispered concerns. Smith, still considered a newcomer with just 22 years in the county, thinks this instinctive reticence may not be the way to go.

"Nothing gets solved by whispers," he said. "It serves nobody not to have full disclosure."

And so he launches this zinger: Unless the hospital provides more details about its predicament, he will withdraw his candidacy for King Rex.

That is a gauntlet thrown before what may be Charles County's premier social event, the annual Mardi Gras celebration. The late-winter party raises funds for the Civista Foundation, which buys equipment for the hospital. King Rex and Queen Mystique reign over the fest, which since its beginning in 1992 has attracted as many as 300 people willing to pay $60 a head and don black tie, ball gowns or costumes. The party is held in a social hall made over into a version of New Orleans, complete with stilt walkers and tarot readers.

Becoming a King Rex nominee is something of an honor, for would-be royalty is nominated by a tight group of social leaders and volunteers. This year, the nominees are Smith and Earl Gieseman, a local bank president.

The one who raises the most money becomes king. A similar contest normally chooses Queen Mystique, but this year there is only one candidate, Rachel DeHanas, a prominent real estate agent.

Smith, 55, a retired military officer, plans an energetic fund-raising campaign with at least six events, including a barn dance, egg nog party, and a millennium tea. But he says the whole schedule could be called off if Civista's picture darkens.

"If funds are being mismanaged at the hospital, then indirectly the Civista Foundation is giving them more money to mismanage," Smith said. "I've got to feel confident that my money is going to do what I say it will."

Such bluntness can dismay. Nancy Gasparovic, hostess for the wine tasting, starts as if pinched when told of Smith's stance.

But Gasparovic, a former Queen Mystique candidate, a former Civista Foundation board member and an inveterate volunteer for many causes, recovers quickly.

"I'm disappointed that he feels that way," said Gasparovic, 52. "The majority of the volunteers that have been with the hospital feel this is a temporary situation, and we need to support our community hospital."

"Community hospital" is exactly how Civista is viewed, despite a name change last year that still is regarded with widespread distaste.

For its first 59 years, the facility in La Plata was called Physicians Memorial Hospital, after the cadre of doctors who toiled in what was then a farming community.

The physicians banded together to establish the hospital after a tornado destroyed La Plata's elementary school in 1926, killing 13 students, including some who perished during long ambulance rides to hospitals in Washington.

With that history, the orange-brick hospital on Charles Street is literally standing evidence of a sense of community that persists, even as growth lays a blanket of suburban sameness over the county's northern edge nearest Washington.

The nonprofit Civista is run by a private board, although the hospital sits on county-owned land. On Oct. 18, members of that board laid out their troubles while asking county commissioners for the loan.

Prolonged computer glitches followed the installation of new software in April, and for at least four months, billing fell far short of its usual pace, executives said. In other words, statements for services rendered lagged, and payments were not being collected. The executives could not say for sure when the billing would catch up.

They also said they'd tapped out a $5 million, short-term line of credit that falls due in January, in part to build a clinic in the heavily populated Waldorf area near the county's northern border with Prince George's.

Commissioners said they need evidence that the billing is being resolved before they lend money.

Hospital executives say that the worst of the billing problem has passed and that patient volumes and revenue are strong. "We're already on the upswing," said President Christine M. Stefanides.

Her message finds an eager audience. At last week's Rotary Club breakfast, several members told Smith it seems the hospital already is recovering.

"We may be getting out of this, but we just need to make sure we don't get back in," Smith said. "What changes are we going to make?"

CAPTION: Civista Medical Center, in La Plata, sank $10 million into debt when it built a new clinic and fell behind in its billing.