The glorious blond visitor in the scarlet suit came into Room 134 of the Washington Home Hospice, holding out her hand. "Hello, Edith Pittman," she said.

An hour later, Edith Pittman, with a tube in her nose and her voice scarcely audible, was still marveling at meeting the Princess of Wales.

"Maybe my living has not been in vain," she gasped.

Edith Pittman, 67, who has done some domestic work and been a distributor for Avon Products, has lung cancer. She is a patient at the hospice, where the terminally ill are treated with respect, dignity and loving kindness and freed from the fear of dying alone. This revolutionary concept was launched in England in 1964 and is slowly catching on in this country.

Pittman was one of four people whom the princess called on Saturday, going to their rooms without the usual tangle of reporters and photographers.

She was not told the princess was coming. The facility on Upton Street, where the six-bed hospice unit is located, was in a delirium of preparation, but Pittman was kept in the dark. "We were afraid she would get too excited," Clinical Director Monica Kashuta explained.

Edith Pittman had followed Diana's progress from kindergarten teacher to princess. "It seemed like she was goin' up while I was goin' down," Pittman said. Closeup, she added, the princess was "like real plain."

"She was gonna sit on the bed, but then she said she shouldn't because she might disturb valuable equipment, meaning the oxygen machine. She asked where the cancer was, and I told her it was in the lung and there was nothing anyone could do about it. She felt bad about it, I could see.

Of the royal visit, she said with wonderment, "I have never been given anything like that before."

In Room 132, Johnette Clark, 54, was lying on her bed with her wig in her lap and smoking a cigarette -- "They don't like it, but they let you" -- and trying not to be carried away, as befits a sophisticated Washington researcher.

"It isn't like I have never been around people like that," she said. "I've met President Ford and I had my picture taken with Walter Cronkite."

She has been in the hospice since Oct. 29, and as she said to her visitor, "It isn't home, but it isn't the hospital either; it's much better.

"She's smashingly good looking," Clark reported. "And absolutely charming," her husband, William Hardgrave, a mathematics professor, interjected.

Clark said the princess "asked pertinent questions -- where the cancer was and how long I had had it. I told her it was in the chest cavity and it was inoperable. She asked if she could sit on the bed, and of course I said yes. It didn't seem like a lot of rote.

"I've never been an Anglophile," she said, "and lately I've been reading that she is anorexic and a dictator, but I don't believe it now.

"I told her she was beautiful, and she laughed and said, 'I hope so -- I only had an hour's sleep last night.' I told her that the cancer is pressing on my larynx and I couldn't talk as much as usual, that I'm very verbal. She said, yes, she knew women like that.

"You know, there are people paying $10,000 for a ticket to a dinner in Palm Beach just to see her." She paused and added, "All I had to do was come in here and die."

But blase, she couldn't be. "It's like some wild fantasy," she said.

Next door, Joan Zuber was apologetic because she couldn't stop talking.

Zuber, at 57, is still a strikingly beautiful woman with large hazel eyes, hair the same color and delicate cheekbones -- like Katharine Hepburn, the nurses tell her. She wore a velour robe of a rich green-blue, and she said she knew she was "garrulous because of the pills I've been taking."

"I'm on top of the world," she said. "She is a kind, gentle, caring woman, obviously from a very nice family. She must have had a loving childhood. I don't think you can give love unless you have received it.

"She asked if I minded if she sat on the bed. I told her I would be honored, and I was honored. I told her the cancer was all over and there was no way of curing it. She was very natural, not stuffy at all."

Zuber's son was watching her with stricken eyes from the foot of the bed. She cast him a bright hazel glance and said, "I would never have met her if I hadn't been sick."

At the hospice, the staff marveled that she had made their patients seem, for one improbable hour, enviable. They saw her as being what they are all about, giving heart to people who have no hope.

"She could teach some of our nurses something," said the medical director, Dr. Joanne Lynn.