Barry went home with her. He wondered how her fastidiousness stood the grimy house in Magpie Alley and its ramshackle habit of life, after the distinctions and beauty of Windover, but he thought it was probably very good for her, part of the experience which should mould the citizen. Gerda shrank from no experience. At the corner of Bouverie Street they met a painted girl out for hire, strayed for some reason into this unpropitious locality. For the moment Gerda had fallen behind and Barry seemed alone. The girl stopped in his path, looked up in his face enquiringly, and he pushed his way, not urgently, past her. The next moment Gerda’s hand caught his arm.
“Stop, Barry, stop.”
“Stop? What for?”
“The woman. Didn’t you see?”
“My dear child, I can’t do anything for her.”
Like the others of her generation, Gerda was interested in persons of that profession; he knew that already; only they saw them through a distorting mist.
“We can find out where she works, what wages she gets, why she’s on the streets. She’s probably working for sweated wages somewhere. We ought to find out.”
“We can’t find out about every woman of that kind we meet. The thing is to attack the general principle behind the thing, not each individual case.... Besides, it would be so frightfully impertinent of us. How would you like it if someone stopped you in the street and asked you where you worked and whether you were sweated or not, and why you were out so late?”
“I shouldn’t mind, if they wanted to know for a good reason. One ought to find out how things are, what people’s conditions are.”
It was what Barry too believed and practised, but he could only say “It’s the wrong way round. You’ve got to work from the centre to the circumference.... And don’t fall into the sentimental mistake of thinking that all prostitution comes from sweated labour. A great deal does, of course, but a great deal because it seems to some women an easy and attractive way of earning a living.... Oh, hammer away at sweated labour for all you’re worth, of course, for that reason and every other; but you won’t stop prostitution till you stop the demand for it. That’s the poisonous root of the thing. So long as the demand goes on, you’ll get the supply, whatever economic conditions may be.”
Gerda fell silent, pondering on the strange tastes of those who desired for some reason the temporary company of these unfortunate females, so unpleasing to the eye, to the ear, to the mind, to the smell; desired it so much that they would pay money for it. Why? Against that riddle the non-comprehension of her sex beat itself, baffled. She might put it the other way round, try to imagine herself desiring, paying for, the temporary attentions of some dirty, common, vapid, and patchouli-scented man—and still she got no nearer. For she never could desire it.... Well, anyhow, there the thing was. Stop the demand? Stop that desire of men for women? Stop the ready response of women to it? If that was the only way, then there was indeed nothing for it but education—and was even education any use for that?