Don’t know about you, but I have always associated the words “I shall return” with the flamboyant WWII general Douglas MacArthur, who said them as he (under orders) fled the Philippines just ahead of Japanese invaders in 1942. But they have been used in other contexts. And in one particular case, the man who spoke them kept his promise, same as MacArthur. But George Beckwith kept his after death.
George Beckwith and his wife Frances were an exceptionally close couple. They were among the early settlers of the Lords Baltimore’s colony in Maryland, building a manor house and managing a plantation along the Patuxent River in what is now St. Mary’s County. But in 1676, so the story goes, George was forced to return to England on business. Frances could not go with him, for they had several children and a plantation to run.
It cannot have been easy for Frances to let her beloved husband go. In those days of poor communication, when ships at sea were essentially little colonies on the water with no contact with the rest of the world (unless they should pass another ship), there was no way of knowing whether he would reach England safely, if at all. On the day of his departure, she stood weeping under a great elm tree, close by the dock where the little boat he would row out to the ship was moored. And George, loving husband that he was, took her in his arms and told her, “I promise you, sweetheart, I will return to you.”
Frances nodded, and managed to smile through her tears. But she stood and watched as he rowed out to the ship and was taken aboard. She watched as the ship’s sails bellied in the wind and it began to move out to sea. She watched until it was out of sight. Only then did she return to the house.
She put up a brave front for her children. And she waited.
She waited as long as she could, for, several months after George’s departure, Frances Beckwith fell gravely ill, and was dead within days. Without knowing where to contact George in London—even if he had survived the voyage—family and friends laid her to rest in a family cemetery. They knew they would have to tell George, should he come home, that his sweetheart was dead. They did not look forward to that.
Some months later, family members and servants alike were disturbed by something odd: the translucent form of the late Frances Beckwith standing beneath the old elm tree, where she had watched her husband sail away to England. She was looking out to sea, as she had done the day of his departure.
Time passed, and Frances’s shade kept its silent vigil. One day in springtime, nearly two years after George left, and more than a year after Frances’s death, a large ship sailed into the harbor and dropped anchor. A boat was put over the side, and a lone man climbed down into it and began to row to shore. A crowd gathered and watched as he rowed closer. Could this be George Beckwith at last?
Frances emerged from the shadow of the elm and walked toward the dock, standing at the end waiting as the rowboat came closer.
Then they saw it was indeed George Beckwith, who rowed right up and leaped onto the dock without bothering to secure the boat. Frances walked into his open arms as he said loudly, as if for the benefit of the watchers, “As promised, sweetheart, I have returned.”
The watchers hung back, for something simply did not feel right about this homecoming.
In the next instant, George, Frances, rowboat, and ship out in the harbor vanished as if they had never been there at all.
Within weeks, word arrived from London that George Beckwith had indeed made it there and transacted his business, but died before he could book passage home. His promise to his wife, though, proved stronger than death.
The old elm tree is still there, I’ve heard. There are frequent reports of a man and woman who stand beneath it, dressed in the fashion of the late seventeeth century, holding hands as they look out to the sea that once parted them.
I first read the story of the Lovers of Beckwith Manor in Deborah Downer’s 1991 book CLASSIC AMERICAN GHOST STORIES.