At the Vatican, they wait for white smoke. At the White House yesterday, they waited for a plain manila envelope.

All of Washington buzzed with rumors, reports and ruminations about the seemingly certain retirement of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. He would announce it in the morning. Or he would wait until afternoon when President Bush returned from Europe. Or Monday, out of respect for the terrorist victims in London.

But after a full day of froth, the evening arrived with no more enlightenment than the morning. If the White House received a sealed envelope from the Supreme Court, as it did a week ago from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, it kept that news to itself.

And the poker-playing chief justice kept his game face on. From the throng of journalists staking out his house yesterday morning, a Fox News producer shouted out a question asking if he were retiring. Rehnquist replied, "That's for me to know and you to find out."

That's exactly what Washington has been trying to do for months. Rehnquist is 80 and battling thyroid cancer. Many of the activists girded for battle over a high court vacancy first expected him to retire last week when the court's term ended, only to be shocked when O'Connor did instead. By yesterday, the speculation crescendoed as administration officials, lawmakers, congressional aides, journalists, lawyers and political operatives traded in gossip that grew ever more urgent (but apparently no more informed) as the day wore on.

Conference calls between conservative leaders focused on the prospect of a Rehnquist retirement and a second court vacancy for Bush to fill. Republicans circulated e-mail and posted Internet messages with the latest supposed updates. Pundits filled the airwaves with their best guesswork.

"I don't think I've seen Washington as back on its heels as it is today," said Mike Russell, a public relations consultant at Creative Response Concepts, a firm that represents conservative groups. "Any rumor is just wildly moved around town. It's just a brushfire. It's an extraordinary situation."

The conjecture spiraled so far out of control that it began to suck in other justices. Suddenly, discussion focused on possible resignations by Justice John Paul Stevens, at 85 the court's oldest member, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, its only woman besides O'Connor.

At midday, members of the conservative Federalist Society gathered for their annual Supreme Court roundup luncheon at the Mayflower Hotel. Former solicitor general Theodore B. Olson paid tribute to Rehnquist, calling him a portrait in courage and stamina who would leave an indelible mark on the court "when he chooses to leave." Olson said the upcoming nomination battle looks to be the most "bitter and depressing" in the nation's history.

Among those in the audience, sitting at the Heritage Foundation table, was Janice Rogers Brown, recently confirmed as an appellate judge and a possible replacement for O'Connor. Speakers steered clear of overt discussion of conservative discontent with the possible nomination of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, but that subtext was unmistakable to many in the audience when Doug Cox, a leader in the Federalist Society, said he hoped the president would not "unilaterally surrender" in the face of threats from Democrats to block any nominee they do not regard as a consensus choice.

The president's strong defense of Gonzales while in Europe earlier this week evidently succeeded in quieting conservative criticism of the attorney general, at least in this setting. "I don't think anyone's changed their mind," said one conservative activist close to the process, but "those conversations are now happening in private." Even Olson, who has clashed with Gonzales over Bush administration policy in certain legal controversies, bowed to his former colleague in an interview after the event. "I like him," he said. "I've known him for a long time, and it's clear the president trusts him."

By afternoon, the Rehnquist bubble expanded as columnist Robert D. Novak predicted on CNN that the chief justice could step down as soon as Bush landed in Washington after four days abroad. "My source tells me that he is going to retire, and the time of retiring will be as soon as the president is back in the country, as soon as Air Force One lands in the country, which I guess is about 10 minutes till 5, Eastern time today," Novak said.

As Air Force One jetted over the Atlantic, in fact, Bush was talking with aides about possible nominees, aides said. His chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., and counsel, Harriet Miers, have been making a flurry of calls to senators including Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Richard J. Durbin (Ill.). Bush is to meet Tuesday with Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the panel's top Democrat.

But as the plane entered U.S. airspace, many in Washington had their sights set on Rehnquist. Camera crews stationed at the White House trained their lenses on West Wing windows, hoping to catch a glimpse if Rehnquist visited. The Drudge Report Web site posted a flashing siren along with the screaming headline "Bush Gets Two: Report: Rehnquist Retires; To Be Announced Tonight."

The rumors became almost comically specific. Shortly after 3:30 p.m., several mid-level aides at the White House said they were expecting a Rehnquist resignation letter at 4:45 p.m. But Air Force One touched down just before 4:45 p.m., broadcast live on CNN, and Bush headed to the British Embassy to sign a condolence book for the victims of Thursday's terrorist attacks in London. He said nothing about the Supreme Court or Rehnquist's possible retirement.

As the sun set, the Washington rumor mill shifted gears. "It is coming Monday from what I am hearing," said a White House aide without firsthand knowledge. "Live it up this weekend."

Staff writers Mike Allen, Charles Babington and Dan Balz contributed to this report.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist leaves his Arlington home with a marshal of the court.Ex-solicitor general Theodore B. Olson praised the chief justice's courage.Criticism of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has quieted.