Hang the budget. Let Gorbachev wait. Washington is in shock over the loss of its favorite companions, the cast and characters of "The Jewel in the Crown." After 14 glorious episodes, a marvelous adaptation of the Paul Scott novels, "The Raj Quartet," has ended its run on the Public Broadcasting System's television network.

Ever since December, Washington, along with other communities around America, has fallen silent at 9 p.m. Sunday nights, when the familiar "Masterpiece Theater" theme has sounded. Anyone who made a phone call in that hour was likely to have a receiver slammed down on his ear. Monday morning office conversations focused on the previous evening's episode, much as the autumn Mondays are given over to rehashing the latest Redskins game.

How to account forthis capital's fascination with the complex plot distilled from the four novels set in British-ruled India in the 1940s? Part of it was undoubtedly the exoticism of the landscape and setting, wonderfully recreated and photographed. More of it had to do with the appeal of Scott's characters, brought to life by a score of the seemingly inexhaustible stable of great British character actors.

But beyond all those artistic qualities, what has riveted Washingtonians to "Jewel in the Crown" is its basic theme -- the temptation and corruption of power -- which is, of course, the enduring and ever-fascinating drama of this city.

"Jewel in the Crown" is about people ruling other people, and the effects on the rulers and the ruled. It is unsparing in its demonstration of the way in which imperialism sapped the moral authority of even the most decent of the British and embittered all but the most saintly of the Indians.

In the changing kaleidoscope of characters and plots we have followed these last three months, the central figure was Ronald Merrick, the working- class police sergeant who rises by force of will and by his instinct for power to be an Army colonel, despite his superiors' knowledge of his cruelties and their suspicion that he harbors internal demons that would destroy most men. When his enemies finally catch up with him, it is a case of justice too long delayed.

One of the oddities of "Jewel in the Crown" is that Merrick is the villain of the piece, but there is no identifiable hero. The strongest characters, the ones with the real principle, are all women, especially Sarah Layton, who is able to see to the fundamentals of human worth, despite the distractions of race and of rank.

Yet it had enormous appeal in this capital, where President Reagan insists we live in "an age of heroes."

I think the reason is that Washington knows how rare heroism really is. Certainly Washington has known more than its share of Ronald Merricks, those figures who have imposed their wills and their strange personalities on weaker figures -- and on the whole institution of government -- even while fighting their own fierce private battles with their impulses and their neuroses.

Think of the way that Ronald Merrick viewed Chillingborough, the private school that so many of his British superiors -- and the one Indian he hated most -- had attended. And then think of all the small-town boys, from Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to Jimmy Carter, who came here with a king-sized chip on their shoulder about the "Eastern establishment."

Think of Ronald Merrick intimidating his native subordinates or interrogating "the boys" he is about to send off to jail for a crime they did not commit, secure in the belief that people of a different color have no claim to rights. And think about the smooth, cold men in Washington who have been equally indifferent to the claims of other nationalities and races, whether they were peasants in Vietnam or Nicaragua or blacks in the South Bronx.

By taking us out of our familiar setting of wide avenues and easy rationalizations and moving us, by the skill of acting, direction and production, to a world at once exotic and yet somehow familiar, "Jewel in the Crown" has allowed us to recognize -- and emotionally confront -- truths that we shrink from uttering about the Ronald Merricks we have around us.

Nothing is more frightening than ignorance in action. Nothing so threatens freedom as the man with power who is trying to drown his own demons. And nothing so quickly and thoroughly corrupts as making one class of men arbitrary rulers over another's fate.

For many of us in Washington, the reruns could start next week.

I have learned a lot since I wrote last month that Vera Katz, the speaker of the Oregon house of representatives, was apparently only the second woman in history elected to such a post, after Tish Kelly of North Dakota.

Thanks to letter writers, I now know of Speakers Minnie Davenport Craig of North Dakota (1933), Consuelo Northrop Bailey of Vermont (1953) and Marion West Higgins of New Jersey (1965). Barring last- minute additions to the list, that makes Katz the fifth woman speaker in our history.

Let me exonerate my friends at the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute from responsibility for dubbing her the second; the error was mine.