The lovely old piano sounds frail and plaintive and haunting as an aging diva when Frank Owens taps out a scale on the yellowed ivory keys.
"To me it sounds like it's coming to life," he says, "almost like it's taking its first breath."
Owens has what amounts to a private museum in his home near Waldorf in Charles County. He's amassed an extraordinary collection of Civil War memorabilia and Native American artifacts. But he'd never collected a pre-Victorian musical instrument until a friend called about this old, square piano in the basement of a dead man's estate.
"[He] knew I loved old, charming things," Owens says.
Half-buried in a pile of junk he found a piano made nearly two centuries ago by an American named Alpheus Babcock, one of the great innovators in the history of the piano. In 1825, Babcock invented the cast iron frame that is used in every modern piano.
"I bent over and looked at the front, and I saw it had keys. It sparked something in me. I said, that's what I want," says Owens, 52.
A private investigator and archaeologist, he is a diligent and tenacious researcher who has thoroughly explored and mapped the escape route of John Wilkes Booth through Charles County's Zekiah Swamp after the Lincoln assassination.
He's traced the extraordinary odyssey of his piano from Philadelphia into the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans, up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers by steamboat and then another 200 miles on a flatboat up the Wabash to Lafayette, Ind., and overland to Logansport, Ind. - and then back east again, perhaps 150 years later.
The piano evokes a kind of romantic lyricism in him.
"I can imagine all the family," he says, "on a summer night, or a winter night, and all they would hear is echoes from this piano, and the family would be gathered around and all I could envision was these people from that period just listening, all by the glow of candlelight.
"And off in the distance, if you were to approach this beautiful home, all you would see is the glow of the candlelight flickering, and you'd hear this wonderful music and laughter coming from inside this house."
The piano stands among the cases and cabinets that contain the Civil War relics, fossils and Native American arrowheads and axes that Owens and his assistant, George Vougioukles, have unearthed in Charles County. Next to the piano is a mummy and a papier-mache case Owens made for a United Way campaign. He's also a sculptor who worked with Frederick Hart on sculptures that adorn the National Cathedral in Washington.
He uncovered the piano about a year ago when his curiosity took him to the home of a man named William Louis Cornwell, a recently deceased Prince George's County man, whose estate was being sold. Nobody wanted the three pianos that remained in the Cornwell house. Owens wasn't interested in two of them.
But in a corner of the dark, musty basement he found the third covered with a tarp and debris.
"Wood scraps and years of dust [were] piled on top of what looked like a long box," he says. "Inside it looked as though several generations of mice had called the inner chamber home. Nuts and nesting material were packed inside."
He took it home and started cleaning. With a surgical probe he pulled stuff out through an opening in the soundboard - lots of peanuts, and a small pair of spectacles, a Continental Army button and a heart-shaped locket snapped in two.
Owens polished it with linseed oil and elbow grease, and the mahogany piano now glows with a dark, rich sheen.
"When I opened it I could tell I was the first one in years to touch it," he says. "It thrills me to touch something untouched."
When he first lifted the top of the piano he found inside brown and brittle fragments of a clipping from a newspaper called the Logansport Pharos for Tuesday, May 3, 1904.
The research into the past of the piano began there.
The headline on the newspaper scraps says: "Piano With History ... Old Instrument Brought Here In Pioneer Days Is Unearthed ... Sent From New Orleans By Boat."
But about a third of the story was missing. Owens located files of the Pharos in the Logansport library and was sent the rest of the story. (Incidentally, the Pharos, founded in 1844, still publishes. The name derives from the isle of Pharos where stood the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.)
"According to the article," Owens says, "in 1904 the piano was discovered in a basement. Ninety-seven years later, I discovered the piano in a basement."
He learned that a frontiersman named Hyacinth Lasselle had brought the piano to Logansport for his daughter, Julia. Lasselle, born in 1777, was a fur trader, a tavern owner and a major general in the Indiana militia. He became one of the founders of Terre Haute, Ind., in 1816.