Damn it, I groan in the direction of my captive audience, why must you insist on sophistication? I may as well be a stowaway for all it's worth.
I can see they're all willing to believe me – I'm here more through luck more than anything else. With that in mind, I decide to play for time, waiting for an idea to pop into my head.
I mean, just look at me. A more ragbag piece of work you'll probably never see. About the only sophisticated thing about me is my hat.
Ah. I pat the dirty brown fedora that forever occupies my head. That will do nicely.
You might have wondered why I wear this awful thing – well, rest assured I have no delusions of grandeur regarding Holy Grails or Lost Arks. That's not to say that it hasn't been through some adventures with me – in fact, this hat is the very thing responsible for giving me my name.
It had begun at a party – a very fancy party. All the big names of society were there, the venue being the grounds of an extremely fancy country house that sat on a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic. In fact, this party was so fancy that I couldn't possibly have been invited on my own merit. No... a friend had suggested I come along, probably out of pity, and so there I was at a fancy bash at a country house, dressed like some sort of lunatic and wearing my trusty fedora. It was wonderfully warm, and my brain quickly became pleasantly addled to the point that I actually dared to relax.
Everything went quite swimmingly until I realised that the jelly was in some way alcoholic; after that, things seemed to go very swimmingly indeed. It was only when my friend caught up with me that I realised something was awfully wrong.
"We've got to get out of here!" he informed me.
"What? Now? Come now, you obviously haven't tried the jelly!" I retorted.
"I'm serious," he said.
"Me too," I said.
"You're inebriated!" he responded, rather angrily.
"Yes, and you're obviously getting very p*ssed!", I japed.
"Just look here, er... Ashman," (in those days, nobody ever knew what to call me) "I have just discovered that the man of this house is none other than one Stavro Lobscouse, an enemy of both our families. If he realises we are here, then, well..."
"He'll make us some more jelly?"
"You're really not helping, you know!"
It was at this point that the Stavro's son Bathos found us, and was angry with us in the most polite of manners. There was no shouting, swearing or petty violence. No – he just threatened to shoot us. It was all very civilised.
You might have noticed that I've omitted to name the friend who brought me to this potentially deadly party. For one thing, I haven't quite forgiven him for inviting me. More vitally, he was the first to be shot.
I pause for effect, then realise that none has been had. I decide to get on with it.
Being quite the gentleman, Bathos allowed us to make amends for the insult to his family by means of a duel. My friend went first, and a small audience watched as he crumpled to the ground before he could ever turn and shoot. I went second and, having seen what had happened to my friend, opted for a rather chivalrous tactic. As Bathos paced away from me, his pistol held patiently in his dauntingly-accurate left hand, I quietly legged it into the woods.
For those who would say that I turned tail and ran – I did no such thing. We were back-to-back, so there was no need to turn tail.
It only took me a few seconds to realise that my plan wasn't going to work – how could I possibly have thought it made sense to run out from the house towards the Atlantic Ocean? I didn't feel like swimming, and so it seemed there was no escape. As I turned to see Bathos lumbering towards me (he was a good shot, but a rather poor athlete), a squirrel-like instinct suddenly kicked in, and I went diving round behind the trunk of a large home oak tree.
'Nuts!' I thought - now what was I to do? Bathos had seen me, and he soon arrived on the opposite side of the tree, demanding in his thick European accent that I come out and be shot like a man. In the heat of the moment, or at the very least in the heat, I believe I urged him to go perform some act upon himself, with the net result being that the rather ungainly Bathos Lobscouse started running round the tree after me.
This went on for some time, with the occasional change of direction as the lumbering son tried to catch me out. For me the deadly duel had started to feel quite unreal – a combination of 'Irish' jelly and circular motion can do that to a man – and I became ever more competitive, keeping just the other side of the home oak tree so that I didn't end up dead.
I hadn't, of course, counted on any distractions from the ever-growing crowd that had gathered just a short way from the tree. As I rounded the damn thing for about the hundredth time, I saw a glimpse of my recently-dead friend's face looking at me from within the group of onlookers. Needless to say I wouldn't have tripped over one of the tree's roots were it not for this untimely diversion, nor would I have landed with such a horrible thump that my hat dropped off my head and onto the ground.
For a moment, it seemed that Bathos was going to shoot me – that would at least have made sense. No – I had a fate far worse.
In front of dozens of the highest flyers of England, Europe and the New World, Bathos Lobscouse began to laugh at me. The dozens joined in to create the cacophony of laughter that formed a background for my bewilderment. Were they laughing at my fall? Maybe. Were they laughing at my cowardly scurrying round the tree, hiding for fear of being shot? They probably found that downright hilarious. And did they find it particularly hilarious when my recently-deceased friend came walking out of the crowd, to congratulate me on falling for the most sophisticated of pranks ever to be pulled? I'll let you decide. But that wasn't the main reason for their mirth – oh no...
"He really fell for it, didn't he?" my 'friend' said as he took the fake pistol from Bathos' hand.
"Indeed... How are you doing down there on the ground, Mr..."
"His name's Ashman."
"How dull!" Bathos announced, in the manner of a man who did not care that I was lying winded on the floor in front of him (and he did not). "We must think of something... more suitable for him."
And so it was that I watched with bated breath as Bathos Lobscouse stared down at me, thinking what name to give a man who had scurried around a tree like a small woodland mammal.
I waited for him to utter the word 'Nutkin', but I was hardly so fortunate. No, my nickname relates not to my cowardly behaviour, but to something far worse. For as I fell to the ground that fateful evening and my hat tumbled from my head, dozens of onlookers all saw the most painfully hilarious thing they had ever seen – my hair, born up into great ungainly streaks by its time within my hat. Yes, thanks to this very hat, Bathos lumbered me with the name I have gone by ever since: Tufty.
Yes, I thought so. They all look rather unimpressed. Ah well. I might as well go find the bartender – perhaps he could fix me some jelly...