We had a meager map of the town and a sketchy description of the exact location of Desart House: 99 Cathedral Road off Desart Lane. We found the lane and proceeded to drive up and down it looking for number 99. No 99 was to be found nor anything that was indicated as or looked like a B&B. Finally in desperation, once again we threw ourselves at the mercy of neighbors. Gino knocked on a door of a house and was pointed up a long drive we had passed several times. No number or name indicated that Desart House lie at the end of the short lane at the top of the hill. Exasperated but relieved, we drove up.
(Later that afternoon as we returned from a walk into town, we turned up the dirt driveway towards the house, ruefully noting a large garbage can, which had NOT been there before, sitting at the bottom of the hill next to the gate. The can’s side was clearly painted with large white numbers: “99.”)
But for one car parked in front, Desart House appeared…well –deserted. The house was a large brick two-story home surrounded by trees and green lawns sloping back down to the lane we had driven up and down during our initial search.
Hesitantly, we approached the front door and knocked. Shortly, an older woman, thin and petite with a friendly yet slightly reserved demeanor, answered. She was obviously expecting us and ushered us into the hall.
Eccentric Miss Haversham from Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations popped into my head at the sight of this woman. (In the story, Miss Haversham was a wealthy spinster who lived alone forevermore in her decaying mansion after she had been swindled and jilted by her fiance on her wedding day.) Sylvia McRoberts was this woman’s real name and she turned out the be very gracious and hospitable; however, we continued to refer to her as “Lady Haversham” when she wasn’t around.
I was sorry I hadn’t taken the initiative to ask Sylvia about the history of her home. It reminded me of the Winchester House in San Jose, California, a huge “haunted” mansion with a maze of twists, turns, doors and steps often leading to nowhere.
Certainly not nearly as enormous and bizarre as the Winchester House, the Desart House had once been dignified and elegant, but was starting to wilt with age. Throughout the stately rooms, the toll of the years was quite evident.