BUCHAREST, ROMANIA -- A month ago, a visiting American called to ask for my appraisal of the situation here.

"I give it until February," I said.

"Give what?"

"The government," I replied, at which point the connection was cut. The curious timing could, of course, be attributed to the vagaries of the Romanian telephone system, not to clandestine surveillance. As with everything else here, it is hard to say.

The leader of the Liberal Party in Parliament said last week it was possible that the army might take power. This past week a credible person who speaks with some authority, warned me that events are moving faster than anticipated, that the government will collapse by Dec. 22, the anniversary of the fall of the former dictator and his wife, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. (Romanians are fond of such symmetry, no anniversary passes without a certain amount of nervous rumbling.) The inscrutable minister of defense, Colonel-General Victor Stanculescu, would take control. In other words, a military coup?

I had heard some of this before -- almost everyone in Romania has, the newspapers note it regularly -- but never with such assurance.

The most common scenario is that as conditions worsen, as the street demonstrations increase in size and intensity, as the government, gradually or quickly, loses control of the situation, Gen. Stanculescu will take control. Before last year's revolution he was first deputy minister of defense. The 62-year-old Stanculescu is the only minister of the present government to have held a high position under the dictatorship.

A coup would be a dangerous precedent, of course, considering the tenuous situation in the Soviet Union, in Yugoslavia. The immediate problem then is how to make a coup look not like a coup but like a step toward democracy, toward the West and the economic assistance it can offer and that the country most desperately needs.

Enter the king. The Head of the National Peasant Party supports the king. So do a lot of others, including a 59-year-old peasant I spoke to earlier this month in Alba Iulia.

"The king's abdication was a frame-up," he said. "My thoughts were with him then and are now. Especially the peasants suppose that if the king returns, we'll have our land back -- but we don't expect the same from these robbers." He was referring to the government.

Still no one could reasonably claim that the people are calling for either the king or for the army. They do want stability, however, and if, together, the king and the army could provide it, they would be welcomed. Neither could achieve it alone.

With these thoughts in mind, I went to Prime Minster Petre Roman's press conference last Wednesday. And I tried (and failed) to get an appointment with Gen. Stanculescu. But before that I travelled west, two weeks ago, to meet with King Michael in his exile. The King, now 69, who came to the throne in 1940 and left it in December 1947 when the Communists forced him to abdicate, lives in a pleasant but hardly regal villa outside Geneva where he rebuilds Jeeps from World War II. He receives almost anyone who wants to speak to him about Romania, including, a couple of months ago, Gen. Stanculescu. He also hopes to see Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger soon.

Does the United States support him in his effort to regain the throne? "Support?" he asked. "I don't think so. Sympathize, maybe."

Would he return to Romania under a military dictatorship? "I'm allergic to dictatorships. I've lived through two of them." (The first was Marshal Antonescu's, the autocratic leader of Romania whom Michael overthrew in his own palace coup on Aug. 23, 1944, thereby turning the country toward the Allies; the second was the Stalinist regime imposed on the country after the war.) "The Army may be the only means of preserving order, but to govern is another matter. A military government gets out of hand if no one is there to control it."

Could His Majesty control it? "I could make the transition to democracy, yes. I could give the people some sense of direction, some confidence. And then you have to do the rest of it as well -- move toward a parliamentary democracy on a constitutional basis. You can't compare us with America and England. We're a young nation. It's very difficult now to say what might happen. I can't do it alone."

He would do it with "the young people." He wisely gave no names.

What did the king discuss with Stanculescu? "Conditions in the Army, the Securitate {secret police}. We didn't touch on any other subject. The good Lord gave me two ears and one mouth. I listen twice as much as I talk"

And his impression of the general? "Slippery."

That impression is shared by many. The role that Stanculescu played during last December's suppression is disputed. He was in Timisoara, the provincial capital in southwestern Romania, for part of the critical week of the uprisings there a year ago. During the revolution his leg, said to have been broken, was in a plaster cast for a few days. It healed very quickly. Just a month ago, 11 months after the event, he claimed he had tendered his resignation to Ceaucescu on Dec. 19. He also said he gave his resignation on June 16, two days after miners stormed through Bucharest.

The king is hopeful, at least for the long run. "For the immediate future, I'm not sure. The people are still divided, but since the elections last May the whole idea of the monarchy is starting to go. At the moment, the only way one can accomplish it is to inform the people -- not give them propaganda, I don't like that word -- to tell them the truth. My hope lies in the young people. They want their dignity back, their history, their past."

Before lunch (chicken livers from the kitchen counter, an agreeable bordeaux) we watched what are in effect the king's home movies -- old newsreels of his grandfather's funeral, his aunt's wedding. They're pretty much like anyone else's home movies except there's a little more pomp and circumstance. There is no pomp in the king's present household and only a few momentos, most given him by visitors. He left Romania with his clothes, the cars the Communists suggested he take, and his memories -- no gold or jewels, though the Communists claim he left with trainloads of riches. The king has worked at several jobs, in electronics, in the stock market. Some relatives helped. "Beggars can't be choosers," he said. "It's not easy."

"Your house is very pleasant," I said when I was leaving. "How long have you owned it?"

"I don't own it unfortunately. I rent it," the king replied. "I couldn't afford to buy it." And so I returned to Bucharest. Outside, the people are chanting: "Keep in mind five words/ It is worse than before!"

That old but catchy slogan of the streets -- like the recent "Revelion/ Fara Ion" (New Year's Eve/Without Ion), a reference to the often predicted fall of President Ion Iliescu -- rhymes in Romanian, a language in which, as in this country one year after the bloody revolution, poetic truth (and poetic justice) is often wishfully confused with political reality. In the dense fog that shrouded Bucharest this morning, as it has most mornings this month, that reality is as hard to discern as the building across the street. One simply has faith that behind the veil of mist it is probably there.

As for political justice, it is not yet a serious part of the Romanian equation, despite a continuing series of political trials that focus rather too narrowly on the events of Dec. 16-21, 1989, the days before Ceausescu fell. Thanks to artful interruptions and frequent postponements, the trials do not probe too deeply into prior or subsequent events, or -- most especially -- the role played in those events by anyone, such as Stanculescu, holding a position in the present government. In Romania, according to the authorized version of revolutionary history, the Securitate are the villains, the Army are the heroes, and the National Salvation Front, that group of former Communists -- most of them "dissidents" to one degree or another -- who took power a few hours after Ceausescu fled and were elected by an enormous and predictable majority last May, are just what the name implies: the saviors.

As winter with its increasing hardships approaches, fewer and fewer believe it. The latest poll, conducted between Nov. 26 and Dec. 2 and released this week, shows the slide in the government's popularity continues. Iliescu, who received 85 percent of the vote last May, now has the confidence of 56 percent of the people, down two points from the previous poll, which also indicated that Prime Minister Roman then had the confidence of 64 percent. In the latest poll, his approval rating has fallen to 55 percent, still a majority, but in the volatile Romanian context, a very fragile one.

On Nov. 15, a vast but peaceful crowd crying for the downfall of the regime -- at least 100,000 people, perhaps twice as many -- filled central Bucharest's largest public space, the Square of the Revolution. It was the largest assemblage since the revolution. Much smaller demonstrations have taken place most days since, not only here but in major cities throughout the land. Early this past week students, teachers, physicians, health and sanitation workers were on strike -- or some of them; it is often hard to distinguish here between a striking worker and a merely idle one.

Thousands of Romania's truck drivers were poised at the access routes to Bucharest threatening to blockade the city until the government resigned. Their union, 90,000 strong, then modified its demands to the resignation of four ministers. The blockade was only partial; 10,000 trucks did not appear in the city as threatened; the strike has ended though negotiations continue. Nobody has resigned yet. Nothing appears to have changed.

The truly astonishing thing is not the chaos these facts would suggest but that the place still functions at all. Traffic flows, the shops are open (though there is little to buy), the black market flourishes, electric power and heat are so far consistent, and water runs for at least a few hours a day. (True, sometimes it is the color and consistency of Turkish coffee.)

Stories of telephone monitoring, mail tampering and surveillance are constant. Even the government admits such things occur, though the director of the Romanian Intelligence Service, which acknowledges employing about a fourth of Ceausescu's Securitate personnel, says his agency isn't doing it. (It must be the post office.) And though Romanians still talk of being afraid, and I know of some who have received ugly anonymous threats by telephone and mail, they speak openly. Or perhaps I am speaking only to the ones who do.

At this moment -- clever slogans notwithstanding and despite the daily street protests and closing of University Square, despite the threats and even the short-lived reality of general strikes, despite the severe shortages of basic commodities and the government's recent doubling and tripling of prices that mean an ordinary person must now work almost two weeks to buy a pair of pajamas; despite the rumors that proliferate like mushrooms after a rain -- President Iliescu is still entrenched in Cotroceni Palace. Only a fool would place a bet on the length of his lease. And perhaps only a fool would want to replace him now. Silviu Brucan, the Marxist intellectual and onetime eminence grise of the Front, appeared on television in early September to announce that "some heads must fall." A few days ago he declared that this is "not the moment" for a change in leadership because taking power now would be "political suicide." Whoever holds the power must take unpopular measures, he said, truthfully declaring that it is one thing to overthrow the government, quite another thing to find an alternative to it. Besides, he predicted the government will lose the next election, scheduled for 1992.

Petru Clej, an editor of Romania Libera, the leading independent daily here, predicted this past week that "the government will survive, but at what cost? The critical moment is 21 December, the night the people took to the streets -- not the 22nd, which is the night the National Salvation Front came to power."

Meanwhile, General Stanculescu is not giving interviews before the 26th. And at his press conference Wednesday, the Prime Minister looked not like someone whose head was about to fall, but as fresh and confident as if he'd just stepped out of a vitamin bath.

But in Romania, as I was told last January in Timisoara, where the uprising began one year ago today, "what you see is not true, and what is true you cannot see, only feel." Nothing since has contradicted the truth of those words.