“The Purple Pileus”[a]A pileus is the cap of a mushroom-like fungus. is a short story by H. G. Wells, first published in the Christmas 1896 edition of Black and White Magazine and republished in The Plattner Story and Others (1897) and The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911).
The story concerns a struggling small shopkeeper, unhappily married to an extravagant and disloyal wife, whose life is transformed for the better after he consumes some magic mushrooms.
Mr Coombs, a small shopkeeper trying to establish himself in business, is trapped in a miserable marriage with an extravagant and disloyal wife who thinks of him as a “little grub”. Following Sunday lunch a friend of his wife, Jennie, had started to play music that Mr Coombs felt was inappropriate for the day of rest – “banjo music”.[b]Lively and raucous tunes made popular by tavelling minstrel shows Mr Coombs had objected, but with the encouragement of Mrs Coombs, Jennie had refused to stop, so he had ordered her to leave his house. When she refused, Mr Coombs had instead stormed out, “his face burning and tears of excitement in his eyes”.
It is late October, and there are clumps of fungi growing along the path Mr Coombs is following. A “peculiarly poisonous-looking” purple fungus catches his eye, and the thought of escaping his miserable existence emboldens him to eat a little of it, despite his childhood warning that all fungi contain deadly poisons. At first it tastes pungent, but then really not unpleasant, so Mr Coombs tries a little more, and then a mouthful.
Mr Coombs realises something has changed; he now feels “bright, cheerful”. He fills his hat with more of the fungus and decides to return home and make it up with his wife, as “life should be as gay as possible”. But on his arrival he appears to his wife and unwelcome guests to be drunk, and when they refuse to eat the fungus he offers them he falls into a rage: “My house. I’m master ‘ere. Eat what I give yer!” As Mr Coombs forces some of the fungus into the mouth of Jennie’s fiancé, Clarence, Jennie and Mrs Coombs seize their chance to escape, but Clarence is not so fortunate, being dragged under the kitchen sink and his face scrubbed with a blacking brush. The afternoon ends with Mr Coombs drinking five bottles of stout and falling asleep in the coal cellar.
The story jumps forwards five years, with a now prosperous Mr Coombs following the same path along which he had found the purple pileus, accompanied by his brother Tom, just returned from Australia. Tom is congratulating his brother on the success of his business, and on how lucky he is to have such a helpful wife. Mr Coombs confides that it wasn’t always so, and that “Women of her sort … don’t respect a man until they’re a bit afraid of him”. He recounts his recollection of the events of that fateful Sunday, and that the following morning he had warned his wife “Now you know what I’m like when I’m roused”.
Tom remarks on the profusion of fungi along their path, commenting that he can’t see what use they are. “I dessay they’re sent for some wise purpose” replies Mr Coombs, which was “as much thanks as the purple pileus ever got for maddening this absurd little man to the pitch of decisive action”.
“The Purple Pileus”, along with “A Catastrophe”, can be seen as precursors to one of Well’s characteristic themes, that of the “little man” enduring an intolerable existence that he succeeds in transforming into something much happier. Wells developed this theme in his novels Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul (1905) and The History of Mr. Polly (1910).
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