N RETURN FOR instruction Fionn had taken over the service of his master's hut, and as he went about the household duties, drawing the water, lighting the fire, and carrying rushes for the floor and the beds, he thought over all the poet had taught him, and his mind dwelt on the rules of metre, the cunningness of words, and the need for a clean, brave mind. But in his thousand thoughts he yet remembered the Salmon of Knowledge as eagerly as his master did. He already venerated Finegas for his great learning, his poetic skill, for an hundred reasons; but, looking on him as the ordained eater of the Salmon of Knowledge, he venerated him to the edge of measure. Indeed, he loved as well as venerated this master because of his unfailing kindness, his patience, his readiness to teach, and his skill in teaching.
"I have learned much from you, dear master," said Fionn gratefully.
"All that I have is yours if you can take it," the poet answered, "for you are entitled to all that you can take, but to no more than that. Take, so, with both hands."
"You may catch the salmon while I am with you," the hopeful boy mused. "Would not that be a great happening!" and he stared in ecstasy across the grass at those visions which a boy's mind knows.
"Let us pray for that," said Finegas fervently.
"Here is a question," Fionn continued. "How does this salmon get wisdom into his flesh?"
"There is a hazel bush overhanging a secret pool in a secret place. The Nuts of Knowledge drop from the Sacred Bush into the pool, and as they float, a salmon takes them in his mouth and eats them."
"It would be almost as easy," the boy submitted, "if one were to set on the track of the Sacred Hazel and eat the nuts straight from the bush."
"That would not be very easy," said the poet, "and yet it is not as easy as that, for the bush can only be found by its own knowledge, and that knowledge can only be got by eating the nuts, and the nuts can only be got by eating the salmon."
"We must wait for the salmon," said Fionn in a rage of resignation.
Life continued for him in a round of timeless time, wherein days and nights were uneventful and were yet filled with interest. As the day packed its load of strength into his frame, so it added its store of knowledge to his mind, and each night sealed the twain, for it is in the night that we make secure what we have gathered in the day.
If he had told of these days he would have told of a succession of meals and sleeps, and of an endless conversation, from which his mind would now and again slip away to a solitude of its own, where, in large hazy atmospheres, it swung and drifted and reposed. Then he would be back again, and it was a pleasure for him to catch up on the thought that was forward and re-create for it all the matter he had missed. But he could not often make these sleepy sallies; his master was too experienced a teacher to allow any such bright-faced, eager-eyed abstractions, and as the druid women had switched his legs around a tree, so Finegas chased his mind, demanding sense in his questions and understanding in his replies.
To ask questions can become the laziest and wobbliest occupation of a mind, but when you must yourself answer the problem that you have posed, you will meditate your question with care and frame it with precision. Fionn's mind learned to jump in a bumpier field than that in which he had chased rabbits. And when he had asked his question, and given his own answer to it, Finegas would take the matter up and make clear to him where the query was badly formed or at what point the answer had begun to go astray, so that Fionn came to understand by what successions a good question grows at last to a good answer.
One day, not long after the conversation told of, Finegas came to the place where Fionn was. The poet had a shallow osier basket on his arm, and on his face there was a look that was at once triumphant and gloomy. He was excited certainly, but be was sad also, and as he stood gazing on Fionn his eyes were so kind that the boy was touched, and they were yet so melancholy that it almost made Fionn weep. "What is it, my master?" said the alarmed boy.
The poet placed his osier basket on the grass.
"Look in the basket, dear son," he said. Fionn looked.
"There is a salmon in the basket."
"It is The Salmon," said Finegas with a great sigh. Fionn leaped for delight.
"l am glad for you, master," he cried. "Indeed I am glad for you."
"And I am glad, my dear soul," the master rejoined.
But, having said it, he bent his brow to his hand and for a long time he was silent and gathered into himself.
"What should be done now?" Fionn demanded, as he stared on the beautiful fish.
Finegas rose from where he sat by the osier basket.
"I will be back in a short time," he said heavily. "While I am away you may roast the salmon, so that it will be ready against my return."
"I will roast it indeed," said Fionn.
The poet gazed long and earnestly on him.
"You will not eat any of my salmon while I am away?" he asked.
"I will not eat the littlest piece," said Fionn.
"I am sure you will not," the other murmured, as he turned and walked slowly across the grass and behind the sheltering bushes on the ridge.
Fionn cooked the salmon. It was beautiful and tempting and savoury as it smoked on a wooden platter among cool green leaves; and it looked all these to Finegas when he came from behind the fringing bushes and sat in the grass outside his door. He gazed on the fish with more than his eyes. He looked on it with his heart, with his soul in his eyes, and when he turned to look on Fionn the boy did not know whether the love that was in his eyes was for the fish or for himself. Yet he did know that a great moment had arrived for the poet.
"So," said Finegas, "you did not eat it on me after all?" "Did I not promise?" Fionn replied.
"And yet," his master continued, "I went away so that you might eat the fish if you felt you had to."
"Why should I want another man's fish?" said proud Fionn.
"Because young people have strong desires. I thought you might have tasted it, and then you would have eaten it on me."
"I did taste it by chance," Fionn laughed, "for while the fish was roasting a great blister rose on its skin. I did not like the look of that blister, and I pressed it down with my thumb. That burned my thumb, so I popped it in my mouth to heal the smart. If your salmon tastes as nice as my thumb did," he laughed, "it will taste very nice."
"What did you say your name was, dear heart?" the poet asked.
"I said my name was Deimne."
"Your name is not Deimne," said the mild man, "your name is Fionn."
"That is true," the boy answered, "but I do not know how you know it."
"Even if I have not eaten the Salmon of Knowledge I have some small science of my own."