Yesterday, it began to seem real.

Not clear – no, the shape and nature of the coming drama remained clouded by frenzy and fumbling and mystery. Plans and counterplans, rumors and theories, false starts and pipe dreams were thick in the capital. There was statesmanship in the morning, partisanship in the afternoon, a promise of cooperation as night fell and a sense that war could resume with the sunrise.

But real. The vision of the Chief Justice of the United States, robed and somber, taking the chair of the Senate for only the second time in history. The sound of William Rehnquist’s flat but commanding, confident voice delivering those words – “the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton, president of the United States.” The stony silence of 100 senators (who ever heard of 100 silent senators?) as they signed their names to the oath they swore to “do impartial justice.”

All this and more combined to hammer home the fact that the biggest thing to hit Washington in a generation is actually happening. No joke, no dream, no nightmare, no faking – the Senate is putting the president on trial.

The day’s ceremonies were believable, perhaps, because they were so restrained. Last month’s impeachment vote in the House of Representatives was such an operatic overdose it couldn’t help but feel fictional. Lawmakers shouted, jeered and wept. The speaker-designate of the House resigned without warning. Television screens were split, with impeachment votes being counted on one half while American bombs smashed Iraq on the other. President Clinton ended the afternoon with a pep rally.

So Washington passed the holidays dazed but telling itself that surely the curtain was about to come down on this thing. A deal would be struck. A plan would be accepted. A compromise would be fashioned.

That may explain why, though the Senate press gallery was jammed yesterday, it was not buzzing with the swarm of Famous Faces – writers, actors, TV big shots – that tends to descend on historic events. No Norman Mailer. “When I talk to friends from New York, they can’t believe this is happening,” says one Washington lobbyist of the Republican persuasion. Political conventions are a couple hundred times more common than presidential impeachments. But so far, impeachment appears to have none of the magnetism.

Ritual helps make things true – a lesson of coronations, weddings, funerals and, we now discover, presidential impeachments. The Senate chamber, quietly dazzling in its blues and creams and marble and dark wood, sounded not with the usual rambling debate or repetitive speeches, but with a formal script of antique sobriety.

“Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye. All persons are commanded to keep silent on pain of imprisonment,” Sergeant at Arms James Ziglar sang out, intoning words written two centuries ago, “while the House of Representatives is exhibiting to the Senate of the United States, Articles of Impeachment William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States.”

A few minutes later, after he had read the House impeachment resolution as required by time-worn rules, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the chief prosecutor in the upcoming trial, requested “leave to withdraw” from the hushed chamber.

It was as regimented as a Mass. The key figures read their parts from index cards. No one riffed or ad-libbed. Every senator was at his or her desk; they stood straight when it was time to stand and sat stiff as deacons in a church pew when it was time to sit.

There were reminders, certainly, that these were the old familiar Washington hands, not statues or history book portraits. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), 96, the oldest senator ever, presided over the proceedings in his role as president pro tempore, and if Hollywood makes a movie about this trial 50 years from now you can be sure they’ll never capture the high nasal drawl and lax articulation of that Thurmond voice.

Thurmond’s capacities are the topic of frequent gossip on Capitol Hill, and were even discussed in his 1996 campaign, his eighth consecutive Senate win. But the red-haired ancient ran the session without hitch or hesitation. As they so often do when contemplating Thurmond, people just shook their heads in awe.

Hyde’s voice, by contrast, came across as almost deliberately unremarkable. He read the House impeachment resolution quickly, without inflection, head down, all business, like one chef reciting a recipe to another.

Rehnquist, with his robe zipped only halfway up, affected the same rumpled air that has been his trademark since tromping into the high court in desert boots 27 years ago.

But these familiar figures were dealing with unfamiliar, once-in-a-lifetime stuff, a truth driven deeper with each incantation of that portentous phrase:

" . . . Articles of Impeachment, which have been preferred by the House of Representatives against William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States . . ."

" . . . proceed to consideration of the Articles of Impeachment against William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States . . . "

" . . . the trial of the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States. . . . "

Again and again, in one form or another, more than 10 times during the brief official proceedings, sounding, sounding, sounding, like the tolling of a great, sad bell.