Jesse Walter Bishop, a career criminal whose path led to death row, sat tonight just 20 feet and minutes away from the Nevada gas chamber. Destribed as "getting a little more nervous," he still expressed his desire to be executed in the first few minutes of Monday.

As the moment approached, it appreared that the 46-year-old killer would refuse to the end to appeal his appointment with death. For while the state readied itself for any lastminute change-of-mind appeal and anti-death-penalty groups had exhausted their appeals and gathered in silent vigil, Bishop said:

"I know I can get in touch with them [defense lawyers]. And I can also walk in there tonight -- and that's the way we are going to do it."

If he does go "in there" it will be in a white long-sleeved shirt, blue prision denims and white stocking feet to be strapped in a white metal chair and there be put to death with cyanide fumes.

Death, which would occur in five to six minutes, would be ascertained by a stethoscope leading from his executioners' room and taped to his chest.

The last walk from his nearby holding cell was set for 12:01 a.m. Monday PDT (3:01 a.m. EDT). The official death watch -- the stationing of three guards with Bishop -- began today at 12:06 p.m. local time.

This evening, Bishop sat alone in his cell eating his requested last meal: filet migon cooked rare, tossed salad with Thousand Island dressing, asparagus, baked potato with sour cream and an undisclosed standard prision dessert. He pronounced the steak good and sent his compliments to the chef.

With their appeals to Supreme Court Justices unsuccessful for the fourth time, death-penalty opponents resolved to protest execution with a vigil at the state prison here -- but they acknowledged that only Jesse Bishop could stop the execution by expressing a desire to appeal.

Tonight, however, prison officials reported no sign that Bishop would act to halt his own execution.

Bishop would be only the third person executed in the United States since state death penalty laws as then written were voided in 1967. Since then, under new statutes, a willing Gary Mark Gilmore was executed by a Utah firing squad on Jan. 17, 1977, and John Arthur Spenkelink was electrocuted against his will last May 25 in Florida.

Nevada's last execution was on Aug. 21, 1961, when Thayne Archibald died in the gas chamber.

The state has six other men on death row, put there under a 1977 law that has yet to be reviewed by the federal courts.

This afternoon in Washington, first Justice William Rehnquist and then Chief Justice Warren Burger denied requests for a stay of execution sought by the American Civil Liberties Union. The full court had previously refused such requests.

Henry Schwarzchild of the ACLU was interrupted during a news conference here today to receive a call disclosing Burger's action. "That is the end of legal proceedings in the Bishop matter," he then said, "unless Jesse Bishop changes his mind."

Indeed, prison officials said they were giving Bishop as much time as possible to halt the execution by calling lawyers and requesting an appeal of his first-degree murder and eight other felony convictions. A phone was in his cell.

Bishop had said he thought the death penalty, whatever his appeals, would eventually be exacted on him and that he perferred simply to get it over with and not beg for mercy.

He pleaded guilty of murdering a 22-year-old Baltimore man, David Ballard, who tried to stop a casino holdup while honeymooning in Las Vegas on Dec. 20, 1977.

For Jesse Bishop, the day began with fried eggs, hash brown potatoes, coffee and toast and, said a prison official, in characteristic fashion. Bishop 'bitched about the fact that the toast was too dry."

Bishop spent the day in the third-floor, northeast corner of the 320-man state prison conferring with a prison chaplain on nonreligious matters, talking to his two brothers and two sisters by telephone and watching a football game.

Officials found him during a 9 a.m. visit as maintaining a "complete self-control." At 11:15 Sunday morning, Bishop was told that former U.S. attorney generaly Ramsey Clark, an opponent of the death penalty, had offered legal assistance even though Clark was in Paris. Bishop signed a notarized statement acknowledging the offer but declined it.

At 9 p.m. local time, prison officials were to proceed with readying the octagonal execution chamber and preparing the cyanide pellets. Bishop's only final obligation was to dress for his death.