Forty minutes or so before the hour appointed to inter Judge Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) was observed hunched over his desk scribbling with the exigent urgency of a schoolboy late with his homework.

Warner was the only senator who had not already declared his intentions. To be the lone surviving remnant of doubt and mystery on a stage otherwise emptied of both is to offer a modest claim to relevance.

But then, John Warner always has. He was once secretary of the Navy, but the world knows him far better as the once and former husband of Elizabeth Taylor.

His good looks are those of the heightened, slightly theatrical variety that discourage a man's being taken as seriously as perhaps he ought. To look at him can sometimes be to feel, as Yeats once said, that you live where motley is worn.

Warner gets about most painfully on crutches these days and, go out as the heart must to anyone's misfortunes, it has to be said that there are misfortunes harder for a spectator to endure than those that have fallen upon a man struck by an errant electric cart at a Virginia hunt race.

At last John Warner stood up to pronounce his judgment, with no plausible expectation left that he could draw out of a moment by now inconsequential the memorable minutes he would.

He offered no apologies for his protracted delay, and he would leave no reason for thinking he ought to. He had spent it with travails of conscience that carried him back to his first youth as a law graduate clerking for E. Barrett Prettyman, chief judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

In the '50s, Judge Prettyman was confronted with a dispute between the administrators of the urban redevelopment law and a huddle of small property owners they proposed to sweep away for renewal's sake. At length, in his indecision, Prettyman suggested that he and young Jack Warner drive out and look directly upon these endangered specimens of the presumably obsolete. They went on that exploratory voyage, and Prettyman came back to write these words:

''Let us suppose that {some particular urban area} is backward, stagnant, not properly laid out -- anything except detrimental to health and morals. Suppose its owners and occupants like it that way. Suppose they are old-fashioned, prefer single-family dwellings . . . believe that a plot of ground is the place to rear children, prefer sun to fluorescent light.

''Are those who hold such views therefore 'blighted'? Can they not therefore own property? . . . Or suppose these people own these homes and can afford none more modern. The poor are entitled to own what they can afford.

''The slow, the old, the poor in ambition, the devotees of the outmoded have no less right to property than have the quick, the young, the aggressive and the modernistic.''

Warner read those old words of Judge Prettyman's to the chamber and said, with their intimacy still echoing, that he had canvassed the opinions of Judge Bork for some of their spirit.

''I cannot,'' he said, ''find in him that record of compassion.''

And so he would vote against Robert Bork. It made no great difference that there would now be 58 ''nays.'' What mattered was that John Warner was the last of the 58 and was saying what they felt better than any who had come sooner.

We cannot be sure that these senators have, in their majority, been fair to Judge Bork. But they have been fairer to themselves. They had assessed him as one of those men who travel through life on a treadmill of abstraction and, for once, they wanted to make it plain that they aren't. They suspected, justly or not, that he was insensitive to the tuggings of his heart, and in their recoil, they voted the promptings of theirs.

Bork was, then, a sacrifice immolated upon the altar where men bow down, all too seldom, to the commands of human sensibilities and humane sentiments. We have no right flatly to declare that he is as frigid as these 58 senators thought him; but, mistaken or not, their suspicions of the coldness of his heart fixed their minds on the responsibility of each to the warmth of his own.

Every southern Democrat except Fritz Hollings of South Carolina voted against Judge Bork. Their united opposition has been widely interpreted as a gesture to their increasingly crucial black electorate. But how are we to explain John Stennis of Mississippi coming from his hospital to register his ''Nay''? Stennis has no problem with black voters; he will not be running again. Have we not some slight cause to wonder whether this act of his might be a kind of atonement for all those years when his heart may have whispered the claims of justice even while his head dictated their denial for the sake of his neck?

Martin Luther King Jr. may not have managed to do as much as we could wish to improve the life of southern blacks, but he succeeded wonderfully in improving the characters of southern whites. Elizabeth Taylor cannot of course look forward to the homage of a national holiday, but it is no mean compliment to have been reminded by John Warner's performance that she always leaves a man better than she found him.