Back in Chile, where Augusto Pinochet would have liked to have spent his birthday, spring is in the air and sunlight is kissing the apple blossoms. But here in suburban London, where Pinochet did spend the day, his 84th birthday dawned damp, cold and bleak--a description that his friends say applies equally to the former general's state of mind.

For the second consecutive year, the man who ruled Chile with an iron hand for 17 years passed his birthday under house arrest in Britain. He is waging an all-out legal battle against an extradition request from an investigating magistrate in Spain.

In the comfortable suburban home on a golf course where Pinochet is under house arrest, a group of his friends gathered tonight to mark the old soldier's birthday. But the gathering was hardly a celebration. That will only come when--and if--Pinochet is permitted to return to Chile.

At this point, though, it appears that his best chance to get home before another birthday rolls around lies not with his defense lawyers, but with diplomats and doctors.

Britain's home secretary, roughly the equivalent of the attorney general in the U.S. government, asked Pinochet last week to go to a hospital for a medical examination. This immediately raised hopes in Chile that the the defendant's poor health might cause the home secretary to step in and end the criminal case. Pinochet's doctor says the Chilean has suffered a series of minor strokes in recent months.

There is no question that the home secretary, Jack Straw, has the legal authority to stop the extradition case for health reasons and let Pinochet go home. The big question is whether Straw would do it. The Home Office has declined to comment on the possibilities.

Diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic would probably breathe a large sigh of relief if the Pinochet case were to end. Chile's government has repeatedly called for Pinochet to be sent home, and the long legal struggle has had a negative impact on relations among Chile, Spain and Britain.

The charges were brought by Baltasar Garzon, a Spanish magistrate. Garzon, a Socialist, is out of favor with Spain's centrist government, and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has signaled that Spain would have no complaint if the British were to terminate the case on health grounds.

Even Garzon has made it known that he would not raise any legal objections if the British government were to let Pinochet go home.

International human rights organizations have been the strongest proponents of prosecuting Pinochet. But some movement activists say they, too, would tolerate a decision to release him now.

"We feel Pinochet should face justice for his crimes," said Reed Brody of New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But the case has already established a fundamentally important legal principle. At this point, it might be counterproductive if Pinochet were to be seen as a sick, elderly man who is being hounded beyond reason."

All those considerations would suggest that Straw might be ready to act. People close to the case both in London and Madrid have even suggested that the former ruler might be home in Santiago by Christmas.

But Lord Lamont, a Conservative Party leader and a friend of Pinochet's, has his doubts. "For months now people in Chile and Spain have been telling me that the man is about to be released--but it never happens," he said. "The basic fact is, we have received no indication whatsoever that Jack Straw is inclined to end this case."